Saturday 28 February 2009

Communist cartwheels

Hat Tip to Olly's Onions (see, I'm learning) for alerting me to this. Scary. And not for the reason the author suggests.

When the cameras should stop

Today's tabloid front pages featured pictures of a distressed Jade Goody leaving home to spend some time in a hospice, suffering some side effects from her cancer treatment drugs. Now it's a fair point to say that she would be no-one and nowhere without the attention of the press. She is 'famous for being famous', has lived her adult life in the public eye, and has made a lot of money out of it. And some would argue that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Unwanted media attention goes with a celebrity lifestyle.

But surely in the current circumstances, where we have a 27 year old mother of two facing an early and painful death, the rules have changed? There's a big difference between stories with which she has willingly co-operated, either because she believes that to do so would help educate young women about the dangers of cervical cancer or because she wants to make as much money as she can to provide for her sons after her death, and pictures snatched by parapazzi photographers lying in wait for her outside her home.

Similarly, although David Cameron has frequently been photographed or filmed with his son Ivan and other family members, I think most people would respect his family's right to privacy at this time. It's just basic decency and I think if one unspoken rule applies for the Camerons, it should also apply to Jade Goody. She has the right to pick and choose when she wants the cameras to run, and when she wants them to stop.

National Policy Forum in Bristol

Today saw me flitting between the National Policy Forum at the WISE campus in Filton, and the South West Labour Party Regional Conference, next door at Filton High School. And then I went into the office to look at all the letters I hadn't seen yesterday - signed off on one file, three inches thick, where we've finally managed to get some compensation for a constituent. We've had a bit of a run of 'successes' lately, which is always very satisfying.

Can't find Gordon's speech on the internet yet - there's a National Policy Forum speech, but it's the last one, not this one. Liked his tough words on the banks, including the commitment to take whatever legal action was possible to recover pensions from the likes of Sir Fred (although I suspect that's going to be difficult) and a recognition that we can't clean up the banking system without cleaning up the hedge funds' boltholes (Monaco, Bermuda, the Channel Islands, Switzerland, Liechenstein, etc) too - "no opt out, no waiver, no free pass for any banks in any country". He also outlined his ambitions for the part-nationalised banks, and defended the Government's intention to implement the Hooper review recommendations on the future of the Royal Mail (but more on that from me tomorrow).

The PM also said some good stuff about sustainability and building our recovery on green foundations, although those weren't his exact words. The basic thrust was that the current economic situation has forced us to take stock, and we need to ensure that the recovery is sustainable, both economically and environmentally - and that means moving away from mass consumption and a disposable, buy 'em cheap and chuck 'em away, culture. There should be a focus on investment in green technology, and developing skills and promoting innovation. No-one wants a 'race to the bottom', which is where the global economy could have been heading before the downturn. International aid becomes even more important in a downturn, to prevent the acceleration of this 'race to the bottom'. That's my interpretation anyway.

Meanwhile, there was lots of Twittering from the Labour 2.0 conference in London (try and then #labour20 if you're interested - or look at the Progress site.)

Friday 27 February 2009

Today was a busy day

Today started with a three hour session at the Council House, chairing an LGIU inquiry into cycling - how can we encourage and facilitate cycling, what local action is needed, what national action, etc. They've already been to a few other places, and consulted widely, and the results will be published before the end of March.

Then did a quick interview with GWR about the Home Affairs Select Committee's visit to Bristol on Monday, as part of their ongoing inquiry into knife crime. They're holding a roundtable event at the Trinity centre, in my patch, and I'll be there to observe.

Then a photo-shoot at the Cathedral for the Fairtrade Fashion Show, with Douglas, on his second recent visit to Bristol. (His day consisted of an event in Islington, train to Bristol, photo-op, mosque visit, students at uni, event in Bristol North West, fashion show, fundraising dinner, train back to London - interspersed with interviews, phone calls and the Blackberry. And taking kids to school. So mine was a walk in the park by comparison).

The mosque visit, in St Marks Road, was a discussion with local Muslims about the humanitarian aid effort in Gaza; much of what Douglas told them (£246m in aid to Palestine, and a further £27m to Gaza in recent weeks, calling for a ceasefire, etc) was met with the response 'but why aren't you telling people you're doing this?' The answer is - we are, but obviously need to do it again and again.

After the mosque I did a fairly brief surgery along the road at the Sikh Resource Centre, then popped into the best shop in Bristol, the Sweetmart. Ten minutes at home to dump shopping and get changed, then off to the Cathedral again. A fabulous setting for a fashion show, and good to see local and national NGO stalls there too. Had a really good chat with Sir Steve Redgrave's business partner. Had no idea he was in the fairtrade clothing business. Douglas officially opened the event, but refused to model any of the outfits, despite my entreaties.

Finished off the night with a Labour do at the Tikka Flame. Fair few Labour councillors there, and in good spirits despite this week's events. Tomorrow it's the National Policy Forum and the South West Labour Regional Conference. Will be 'doing' both.

Bristol fashion

I've only been to two fashion shows in my life. The first was at Silai for Skills, which runs dressmaking classes in Easton in my constituency. I remember it primarily for the fact that I was collared after the show by a certain Lib Dem councillor who rather loudly and angrily denounced me for something I'd posted about her on this blog, and more or less accused me of being racist for commenting on her frequent absences from the UK, despite the fact that her race had nothing at all to do with the story. Rather bad manners I thought, to do so in front of the event's organisers.

The second ever fashion show I've attended was tonight: a Fair Trade fashion show at Bristol Cathedral, organised to mark Fair Trade Fortnight. It was a really good evening, with students from Filton College modelling fair trade clothes and their own designs. (Including some rather fetching 'recycled' outfits made of bin liners and plastic bags. My favourite was the mini-dress made of Walkers crisp packets). Special guest at the evening was Sir Steve Redgrave, who, I discovered has a fair trade clothing company called Five G - have a look at this clip, which shows how he sources fair trade cotton from Mali. Seems like a nice guy.

Anyway, it was while I was at the show that I was told the same councillor has hit the headlines again, this time for accusing an Asian Tory councillor of being 'a coconut'.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Mrs T

Watching the drama about the downfall of Margaret Thatcher ... She's the only woman in it (amongst the politicians, that is). "I'm a woman Willie, I must dominate them or they will destroy me".

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Jeremy Kyle Fan Club

I've finally got round to blogging for Labour List, on my Ten Minute Rule Bill. (Protection of Privacy of Children in the media).

Ivan Cameron

Prime Minister's Questions has been cancelled and Parliament has been suspended till 12.30pm because of the death of David Cameron's son, Ivan. I thought the statements from Gordon Brown, William Hague and Vince Cable were very moving. As I think Gordon said, every child's life is precious in its own way.

More on nuts

This might explain why nut allergies don't seem to exist in Africa - kids eat lots of them at an early age and build up a tolerance.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Any excuse for a cute photo...

I don't sign EDMs any more, but if you have an MP who does, I've been asked to publicise this. And I have asked parliamentary questions on this issue, not with any great success it has to be said. Must remember to follow up. Anyway, here's Paddy Tipping's EDM:

That this House recognises the UK's international obligations to maintain its globally important seal populations at a favourable conservation status; notes that seal populations remain depleted and are threatened by further outbreaks of the phocine distemper virus and remain under increasing threat from climate change, depletion of prey species pollution and deliberate killing; notes with extreme concern scientific reports of a frightening decline in the population of common seals in UK waters; further notes that an estimated 5,000 seals are shot in Scottish waters by the salmon industry; believes that the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 is outdated and in urgent need of review or replacement; and calls on the Government to implement an immediate and comprehensive ban on the deliberate killing of all seals, to replace the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 with legislation for the comprehensive protection of seals in the forthcoming Marine Bill and to liaise with the Scottish Executive to this end.

This apparently is a Kirkcaldy seal. Wonder if we can enlist the local MP in support?

Goings on at Bristol City Council

I gather the Lib Dems have now taken 'control' of Bristol City Council after tonight's Budget meeting, where the opposition parties united to vote down Labour's waste scheme. No doubt they will make as much of a hash of it as they did last time. Still, only three months till the local elections.

Here's the resignation statement, hot off the press:

Tory and Lib Dem Alliance forces Labour Resignation at Bristol City Council

Amendments to Labour’s Budget at Bristol City Council from the Lib Dems, which aimed to derail the city’s waste strategy, were backed by the Tories – and Labour decided they could not push forward a policy with which they fundamentally disagreed.

The waste strategy is agreed council policy and is also agreed by the West of England Partnership comprised of Bristol and the Conservative led authorities of South Glos, North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset.

The Liberal Democrats challenged Phase 3 of the Waste Strategy, and gained Conservative support for that amendment.

The Labour administration had no alternative but to resign believing that the consequences of pulling out of Phase 3 would put an impossible financial burden on Council Taxpayers and will force cuts in other services.

When the Tories joined with the Lib Dems to force through their amendment it left the city of Bristol without any plan for dealing with the city’s waste and with no real funding for any alternative.

Despite advice from officers that the council will now face compensation claims from neighbouring councils this irresponsible amendment was passed – and could cost the council up to £6m a year over 24 years.

In resigning Cllr Holland said: “We believe that more than the waste strategy is at stake here - we are proud of the work we have done to transform the city council in the last 20 months building better relationships with partners and giving confidence in Bristol to government and other funders.”

The concern about the impact on confidence in Bristol is an important point. I know that Bristol - and Helen in particular - was well regarded in Government circles, not just by politicians but by civil servants too. We've been the beneficiaries of this, winning extra funding or being chosen to run pilot schemes because the Government trusts BCC to deliver. Will the Lib Dems be able to rise to the challenge? I doubt it.

Earth Hour 2009

As you can see from their website, WWF show a pleasing appreciation of just who is most important in the big scheme of things. Earth Hour is on 28th March, from 8.30pm, and it's basically about switching off the lights and having parties in the dark, whilst highlighting the important issue of climate change. And it's the Wildlife people not the Wrestlers.

Bristol has been asked to take a lead on this, given its green credentials and even greener aspirations. Speaking of which, I was looking at an email from the Stop the Barrage Now campaign a moment ago, which refers to a character named 'Green Vowles'. Sounds vaguely familiar....

Where it's coming from (2)

Did anyone see Michael Crick's report on Ashcroft on Newsnight last night? It bore a striking similarity to my blog post!

Monday 23 February 2009

Progress conference this Saturday

Progress are holding a 'Campaigning for the net generation' event in London this coming Saturday. I won't be able to make it - got the National Policy Forum and the South West Regional Conference on the same day - but it sounds good. The boss will be explaining why he's still not on Twitter, despite all my efforts to persuade him to give it a go, and there is the almost obligatory appearance by an Obama campaign guru.


Speaking of nuts (which Cameron is on Channel 4 news at the moment, in relation to the VAT cut, presumably hoping that Ken Clarke isn't listening) I was slightly alarmed to see that in Zambia they add peanut oil to their sugar. I spotted it on the sachets in the hotel room - and yes, I am the sort of person who reads sugar sachets even when I don't take sugar. It's an automatic reflex.

Until very recently I had two members of staff and an intern with nut allergies, one of whom was so allergic that he wouldn't touch anything which even mentioned being made in a factory where nuts were present. So the sugar is potentially a killer, and not something anyone is likely to check. Sugar is usually just sugar, isn't it?

Later, as chance would have it, I ended up in the company of someone from Zambia Sugar at the High Commissioner's house, at a reception for British business people. Turns out they add Vitamin A to the sugar because there's a real deficiency problem in Zambia, and peanut oil is added to aid absorption. (One of the strange things about Africa is the way sugar is promoted as a healthy food - they do it in Uganda too). I asked him about nut allergies and he seemed bemused, but then said it was only a tiny amount anyway and shrugged it off.

No idea what the prevalence of food allergies is in Zambia. Ground nuts are very much a staple part of the diet. I thought maybe it was one of those things that comes as a result of a pampered Western lifestyle and diet, but in Jo'burg airport the labelling on the South African produce re potential allergens was incredibly comprehensive. Although maybe that's because it's designated for tourists.

So - do Africans suffer from food allergies? Anyone know?

Where it's going, and where it's coming from

Compare and contrast "" and "realhelpnow", respectively the American and British guides to what steps are being taken to get us out of the economic downturn.

The UK one launched today, and there are going to be regional launches too. Or so said GB at tonight's PLP. He was on good form. It's always easy to tell with Gordon what sort of mood he's in, compared with Blair who was a consumate actor. Tonight he seemed quite relaxed and confident. Questions about job losses, Royal Mail, how we communicate in a coherent rather than piecemeal manner what we're doing to combat the recession. Any suggestions for an alternative to 'fiscal stimulus'? Or 'quantative easing'?

Gordon said that when the Cabinet were in Southampton today they passed the offices of Bearwood Corporate Services, the Michael Ashcroft company which is currently in the news; apparently there's a gold plaque on the door but little other sign of life or occupation. Speaking of whom, did you know Michael Ashcroft has his own website? "If home is where the heart is, then Belize is my home", he says. Well that settles it then.

I've been to Belize, went diving with sharks, and cave-tubing, and abseiled through the rainforest. Great place. Didn't dive the Blue Hole though; it's no place for a novice. But one day...

Saturday 21 February 2009

BristolMatters on Twitter

Can I recommend BristolMatters on Twitter? Really good way of keeping up with local news. And yes, I'm still in Lusaka, heading to airport pretty soon, but have just been reading about the chance that other companies might compete with First to run the city's high speed bus network. Which can only be a good thing.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Postcard from Zambia

Today we went up north, to the copper belt. We were given a tour of a copper mine, which was fascinating. Baffling in places, but fascinating none the less. Back in the capital, Lusaka, we met with representatives from Zambian civic society, to talk about democracy, accountability and media freedom. Transparency International said that they'd marked the previous President 70% for his anti-corruption stance. The new guy, elected in October, gets only 20%. But it's early days.

Tomorrow we're heading down to the Zimbabwe-Zambia (or Zim-Zam as it's known) border to see how Zambia copes with desperate people crossing the border from Zimbabwe. And we're meeting the Electoral Commission, the Auditor General and the Minister of Finance at some point too... or is that Friday?

We must hate kids...

Yes, still in Zambia but haven't got time to do justice to what I've been learning and seeing by blogging about it now, not least because it's just turned midnight and I have to be up at 7am. The connection is much faster at this time of night, I've learned, but having spent the last hour going through my emails, I think it's almost time to call it a night.

Just wanted to congratulate David Aaronovitch on his piece in the Times yesterday. And to point out that I was saying the same thing last autumn with my Ten Minute Rule Bill on protecting children's privacy in the media. Good to see that other people feel the same way.

Since introducing the Bill (which ran out of parliamentary time as it was introduced just before the end of the last parliamentary session) I've written to Ofcom and DCMS but need to have a good long think now about how we can take this campaign forward. Maybe we could have a Jeremy Kyle Show special about it?!

Monday 16 February 2009

Update on Zambia

Well so far it's taken me nearly 45 minutes to check a couple of important emails, get onto Twitter, and moderate blog comments. Has been a busy day today, mostly at the Zambian parliament meeting their Public Accounts Committee, their Information and Broadcasting Committee, members of their Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive, the Deputy Speaker (a very impressive woman), and having lunch with MPs at the place they live.

Yes, that's right - Norman Baker would be delighted to hear that backbench MPs in Zambia all live in the same motel, paid for out of their allowances. Parliament sits for about 6 months of the year, and if they want to stay there when Parliament is not sitting, they have to pay for it out of their own pockets. Ministers have their own houses, which are provided by the Government too.

We also learned that Ministers are not allowed to venture more than 25km out of Lusaka without the permission of the President, as he wants them to be in the capital, working and available for him to see whenever he needs to do so. They even need his permission to visit their constituencies! Often they only make it to their constituencies a few times a year, and as a consequence are often not re-elected. There's a very high turnover of MPs in Zambia, partly also because party allegiance is not so strong. Basically there was the one party which split, so political differences are not that great.

Travel times make it difficult also for MPs to go back to their constituencies every week, as most of us do in the UK. The Deputy Speaker represents the most northern seat in Zambia, and it's more than 1000km (and not on motorways either!) Her seat has about 15,000 voters and is 200km wide. Some urban seats will have many, many more voters. They do have boundary reviews, but there's much more variation between constituency size than there is in the UK.

I met another MP, Vincent Mwale who was elected at the age of 27 and is still only 30, which makes him the youngest MP in the Zambian parliament. His background was in setting up an NGO working on HIV/ AIDS issues, and he became so well-known and popular through his work that he was elected to Parliament on the strength of it. We talked about Obama's election and how important removing the 'gag rule' will be to the fight against HIV/ AIDS.

Vincent told me he represents about 140,000 people but only 33,000 voters as many people don't have their national ID which allows them to register. They recognise this is a problem, but running electoral registration drives is very expensive.

MPs are on a salary of about 1500 pounds per month (no pound sign on this keyboard!) which is more than a civil servant but less than the private sector. It doesn't go too far as their constituents expect them to dip into their pockets all the time - even to help them buy coffins when someone in the family has died! Someone said they were regarded as 'a walking ATM'. Obviously this leads to problems, which is one of the things we're here to discuss this week.

My hour is nearly up. I will leave you with the words of one Zambian MP today: "Spaghetti doesn't stop being confused until you eat it".

Sunday 15 February 2009

In transit

At Jo'burg airport. Was going to blog but the computer was taking ages and now they've just announced boarding for the flight to Lusaka. Someone else will have to tell the trolls why they're talking complete nonsense!

Saturday 14 February 2009

Jetting off

Feeling a bit guilty about flying to Zambia later today, although it's very much a work thing. Still, at least I'm doing better than Prince Charles. And I will be leaving my entourage behind.

I normally travel very light but this time I've been given several England football shirts, some sports bags and some (deflated) footballs which take up half the suitcase already. The football stuff is for us to take out to a boys school, which is linked to the UK through the International Inspiration programme. As part of the 2012 Olympic bid we said we'd work with 5 countries, each on a different continent, to help promote sports amongst young people - Zambia was the African country chosen.

I will also be visiting a clinic, the Zim-Zam border, and an open mine. I think the copper mine will be fascinating, although slightly worried as they've just got in touch asking for my shoe size and coat size for the protective gear; I suspect there aren't many Zambian copper miners with size 2 feet. Even when I went along to the laying the foundations ceremony at Brislington school I had to wear size 6 wellies, which along with the protective goggles and the fluorescent lime green waistcoat (also several sizes too big) made for a particularly attractive photo op.

Babies having babies

When I was at secondary school - i.e. 30 years ago which really makes me feel old - there was a lad a few years below me who'd got a girl pregnant when he was still at junior school. He was 11; she was, I think a couple of years older. From what I recall he could in no way have been described as baby-faced or cute, and he didn't improve with age.

Just thought I would mention this in view of the media frenzy that is jumping on one isolated case as an example of 'broken down Britain' and in some cases, trying to pin the blame on sex education in schools. Yes, teenage pregnancies continue to be a problem, and there's something deeply wrong about a boy whose voice hasn't even broken yet, and who doesn't understand what the word 'financially' means, becoming a parent. Yes, it seems that the parents were deeply irresponsible in this case. But sadly, it's not a new phenomenon. I knew another girl who was pregnant four times from the age of 13 - two abortions, two miscarriages and then she had a child at 16 or 17. She was, last time I bumped into her, now married to the same lad, with several children who were all attending private school, living in a nice house.

So when David Cameron says: 'When I saw those pictures, I just thought how worrying that in Britain today children are having children," he ought to be reminded that children in Thatcher's Britain were doing exactly the same.

The girl in the first case I mentioned, of the 11 year old boy, had a termination. Seems to me that was by far the most sensible thing she could have done. IDS - the champion of the 'broken Britain' critique would of course disagree. Nadine Dorries - another anti-abortionist - hasn't commented on the case yet, but I'm sure she will. The cases I cited, incidentally, happened about three miles from her Mid Beds constituency, in Luton, but seeing as she's recently blogged that the mere existence of Luton is responsible for Beds being voted the worst county in Britain, I'm sure she won't be surprised.

Friday 13 February 2009


LabourList officially launched yesterday with a blogger's breakfast; I was intending to go, but then had to be somewhere else. Having had my doubts about the site when it took its first tentative steps into the blogosphere, I think it's now starting to come together. I will get around to posting on there one day, but I think it's a particular useful tool for MPs who don't have their own blogs, but have one specific issue where they want to get their views into the public domain (e.g. Andy Slaughter and Heathrow).

As expected the trolls have been busy on the LabourList site. They also seem to be in a particularly obnoxious mood on here at the moment - it's not that I've not been getting comments, I've just been pressing 'Reject' rather a lot. (And thanks BB for the last one; I'm sure you can understand why I'm not posting it).

Derek Draper is, naturally, the main target and has been forced to set up his own personal blog to defend himself against libellious attacks - I particularly like Luke Akehurst's piece on this, and his comment that he has never met anyone like Guido or his 'useful idiots' in real life. Neither have I.

Is it because they maintain a veneer of normality in real life and, like the modern-day equivalent of 'poison pen' letter writers in Agatha Christie books vent all their spleen under the cowardly cloak of anonymity? Or maybe they just never leave home?

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Obviously the most important point made at PMQs today...

Was chatting to Tom Watson in the tearoom just now about this latest example of Tory mendacity. Apparently they also altered a Wiki entry once on - and I quote 'warthog poo'. Anyone know what that was all about?

Death to squirrels

As is usually the case I ended up buying yesterday's Guardian on the way home from work at 10.30pm and not reading it till I was drying my hair this morning. Anyway, I was reading about plans to cull grey squirrels because they're driving red squirrels out Scotland. (Scotland being the last refuge of the red squirrel apart from the Isle of Wight where grey squirrels are shot on sight.* Although it would be easier just not to let them on the ferry.

But red squirrels are not an endangered species; there are plenty of them elsewhere in Europe. So why is it so important that we have them in the UK? Yes, they're cute. Probably a bit cuter than grey ones. But is that grounds for treating one type as superior to the other? (One of the reasons I became a vegetarian - why is it ok to eat cows and not kittens? Unless you're George Bush of course, who doesn't care). Here's another suggestion as to what to do with greys - eat the enemy.

* artistic licence - they're trapped not shot.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

What a president should know...

I'm on the emailing list for Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank.

At the moment in policy wonk land you can't move without bumping into a former presidential economics adviser. The one who is appearing courtesy of Policy Exchange is a Dr Lawrence B. Lindsey "Dr Lindsey was economic advisor to three US Presidents, Director of the National Economic Council 2001-2002, and Governor of the Federal Reserve 1991-1997. He is the author of What a President Should Know...but Most Learn Too Late. Famous for having predicted the dot com crash, Dr Lindsey was the architect of the trillion dollar tax cut which helped pull the US out of the post-2001 slump."


As Aristotle once said....*

The boss has been blogging again on Labour List. One day I'm going to persuade him to have a blog all of his own.

The difference I guess between traditional campaigning and using new media, is that with traditional campaigning - door-knocking, telephone canvassing, street stalls, street surgeries, etc - you can target exactly who you want to meet: i.e. your constituents, your voters. Whereas with blogging, websites, Facebook, Twitter and the like, you might reach a much wider audience but not necessarily the ones that really matter. (At which point I feel obliged to mention my 35 hits from Uruguay in December, of which I am very proud). And you can expend a lot of effort 'talking' to people who should really be having an online dialogue with their own MPs. As I've said on here before, most MPs who don't blog - i.e. most MPs - think that MPs who do blog are mad to do so.

I was speaking to an MP last night, who went out canvassing at the weekend in London with 14 activists. Pretty good going considering the weather. In the space of a morning they made 40 contacts. They were canvassing in an area of tower blocks and secure entry flats, so access made it difficult plus the fact a lot of people aren't on the electoral register, but even so... The MP then said that there was a 30% 'churn' of voters in the seat every year, i.e. people moving homes. So, I calculated, if the election is in a year and a bit's time, maybe 25 of those contacts will still be there? (At which point Douglas interrupted the conversation and told me never to go into business as an after-dinner motivational speaker).

I don't think anything beats door-knocking in terms of actually being able to meet voters face to face and have a conversation with them. But I think that blogging, websites, facebook groups - the more interactive the better - are becoming increasingly essential too.

*As quoted by DA in his piece. Aristotle wrote that “one citizen differs from another, but the salvation of the community is the common business of them all”. Not really relevant to this post but I liked it.

Bankers come to Parliament

Big scrum of photographers (as I believe it is obligatory to describe them) outside Portcullis House this morning, awaiting the arrival of the banking bosses for their appearance before the Treasury Select Committee. It's days like these when I wish I was still a member; I came off the committee just as it started getting interesting. Anyway, off to a completely different meeting now...

Sunday 8 February 2009

Celeb friends

I've just got an email from the drummer from Blur!* Wants me to sign this EDM:

EDM: Bank Bonuses

That this House notes with concern the desire of state-supported banks to pay large bonuses to senior executives at a time when tax payers have provided a subsidy to those banks in excess of £37bn; further notes the regular reports of job losses around the country in sectors less generously supported by tax payers; and calls for the Government to consider measures to limit banking salaries and bonuses until the British economy reaches stability.

* aka the Labour PPC for the Cities of London and Westminster seat.

And no, never met him. Think I saw Blur live once. Supporting someone or other. Was trying to remember today, reading about the death of Lux Interior, whether I ever saw the Cramps live. I think I did. Used to see loads of bands, they all tend to blur into one, if you'll excuse the pun.

The Final Countdown - to Eurovision

Someone at the Gaza rally in Bristol on Saturday suggested that Israel should be banned from this year's Eurovision Song Contest. While you're pondering that you might want to look at today's featured video (five stars no less!) on the official site for Moscow 2009, and reflect on the days when we actually used to win things.

25 random things - but not about me

You've probably seen the thing that's going around Facebook and various blogs. No-one's asked me to do it... But the Lib Dems have done it. Although I suspect this may be a hoax as the author actually seems to have a sense of humour.

Do you want freedom fries with that?

Scuba Doo

Haven't been able to find a picture of a sea kitten snorkelling, but here's a scuba dog.

Sea kittens

From today's Atticus in the Sunday Times:

Animal rights campaigners have targeted a Porthcawl chip shop, calling on it to rename its fish as “sea kittens”. The activists believe that customers confronted with a cuddly sea kitten will be put off their fish supper. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) asked owner Huw Jones to change all mentions of fish and to rename the shop as Finnegan’s Sea Kitten Bar. – South Wales Echo.

The horror of knitted nylon

This story has everything a Mail reader could ever want... a Muslim gay millionaire Labour peer, works in TV production, friends with Peter Mandelson, who has decided he doesn't want to wear fur and has therefore ordered some new robes. I don't believe for a moment that means he's forced to go for 'hideous knitted nylon' - it's quite easy to get decent fake fur. It's not as if he's buying it from a market stall in Albert Square.

What most intrigued me about this story however was the revelation that Lord's robes reveal their rank, by the number of pelts they wear - four for a duke, three-and-a-half for a marquess, three for an earl, two-and-a-half for a viscount, and two for a lowly baron. I can't believe we're still doing this, in this day and age.

Which I guess leads me on to the recent Lords lobbying stuff. The moment has passed really for me to blog about it but it's obviously further evidence that the sooner we get a wholly-elected, professional, paid House of Lords the better. I do still have some reservations about what I call the Robert Winston factor - how do we ensure we get Lords of his quality, and experience, if they're all elected full-timers? That's what holds me back too from insisting that none of them should be allowed second jobs. I think it's great that Lord Darzi still works as a surgeon one day a week, as well as being a health minister. Maybe we could have some elected on a regional basis, and some on a top-up list, with the understanding that those on the top-up list would be 'the experts' and wouldn't be expected to fulfil the same role as the rest.

Going to blog on the whole issue of Parliament and lobbying and MPs having second jobs at some point... but not here.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Are they by any chance related?

Someone yet again today mistook Paul Smith, Labour's candidate for Bristol West, for Stephen Williams, the current MP. 'Stephen' (aka Paul) and I were shepherded towards a TV camera at the Gaza rally with the words 'the two MPs, Kerry McCarthy and Stephen Williams' are here. (And no, Paul didn't do the interview.)

This happens a lot. Probably to Paul's disadvantage as when he's 'putting himself about' at community events while Stephen is stuck in Westminster there must be many people who are giving their MP credit for putting in a guest appearance.

"We don't do God" Part Two

Tony Blair has finally escaped from Alistair "we don't do God" Campbell's strictures and has just given a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. (Apart from the sheer unlikelihood of having an atheist president of the USA, I guess if they did he'd still have to go along to the National Prayer Breakfast and, basically, go along with it).

Anyway, Blair's speech included phrases that would have caused Alistair to explode if he'd inserted them in his party conference piece (e.g. 'in surrendering to God we become instruments of his love') and a very clear exposition of his belief that 'only God' or 'faith alone' is the answer. Which I for one would have found slightly alarming if he'd said it when he was PM, even though I suppose I always knew that's what he, as a committed Christian, must have believed.

More disconcerting, however, was this passage:

"Today, religion is under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance."

I don't actually think - Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens notwithstanding - that we are seeing an increasingly aggressive secularism. And yes, I suppose those writers do 'deride' faith as 'contrary to reason', and some will find the tone offensive. For many more of us though, it - the notion that faith is contrary to reason - is just what we believe. And surely we should be allowed to say that too?

"We don't do God"

When I last mentioned the "there is probably no God" bus on here, someone - ok, my mother - said she wasn't sure I should have said I was an atheist. Agnostic, she suggested, might have been better, by which I assume she meant less likely to offend people. Or possibly she meant it could be construed as a bit arrogant to say you definitely don't believe, rather than admitting to having doubts.

Anyway, there were obviously some who found the atheistic bus offensive (or should that really be, the agnostic bus - it said 'probably' after all). And they've now retaliated with their own "there definitely is a God" bus. No 'probably' there!

I'm not offended by this; it's no different to what you see outside many churches. But I do think that the calls to respect other people's faiths, which we frequently hear, should also be extended to people's right to not believe. And then you get into the question of quite how far that respect should stretch....

The mantra usually recited by British politicians these days is 'people of all faiths and of none'. (But then they consult the faith groups and not the others). And Obama was, I think, the first president ever to refer in his inauguration speech to 'non-believers', which is a step forward.

At today's Gaza rally in Bristol several speakers - included an iman and a canon - referred to 'Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and non-believers' or variations on that theme. But despite the reference to non-believers, there was very clearly a religious thread to the event, with speakers referring to 'one God which unites us' or something along those lines and the opening remarks of my speech being interrupted by someone starting a chant of allahu akbar (God is great) - not by way of heckling, I hasten to add, but in appreciation of something I said.

I don't have a problem with this, any more than I would if I went to an event at the cathedral and they started singing hymns. The march/rally was organised by Bristol mosques after all. But I do often find myself in the situation where I go along with other people's expressions of faith, whether it be by joining in hymns and prayers at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday or attending civic services at Bristol Cathedral, or covering my head and taking off my shoes when I visit a mosque or Sikh temple. Or listening respectfully to colleagues when they talk about their faith, blithely assuming I must share their views.

The mosque/ temple thing is easy; it would be wrong and rude not to respect their wishes, even if on some level I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that a woman has to protect her modesty by covering her hair. Attending weddings and funerals is simple too; you respect the wishes of the people getting married, or the person being buried. (Whenever I tell my mother that if I go first, I don't want any religion at my funeral, she says I won't be around to argue about it. For the record, I want 'Find the River' by REM.).

In church services I tend to bow my head rather than join in the words of prayers, but without making an issue of it - unlike during school assemblies when my friend Mark and I used to make a point of staring straight ahead, eyes wide open, as teenagers do. But I'll be frank - there are times during official services when I feel very uncomfortable singing the words of some hymns or listening to the words of a sermon, or a prayer. Probably more uncomfortable than a Muslim would at a Christian service, or vice versa.

I guess people with strong religious beliefs may find it difficult to comprehend how someone without faith feels when confronted with expressions of it. Like the nurse from Weston who was suspended from work because she'd offered to pray for someone when changing their dressing. (Which I think would be a little bit alarming actually, as if someone was offering to read you the last rites.). She was on TV yesterday saying she was back at work, hadn't been told she couldn't offer to pray again, and was "happy to pray for anyone". I wouldn't want someone praying for me, or offering to pray. Would I find it offensive? Yes, I think I would.

And then of course there's Tony Blair... but I'm saving that for part two!

Friday 6 February 2009

For the boys

Obviously it's important to campaign to raise awareness of male cancers too.

Should prostitutes pay taxes?

Conservative MP thinks prostitutes should be exempt from paying taxes. Not sure she realises it, but in arguing against the new laws which would allow the authorities to keep 25% of the proceeds from a police raid that is more or less what she is saying. And the Lord is on her side. (No, not any of those ones). She says it will make sex workers more likely to end up working on the streets, and put their lives in danger: even, it is suggested, drive some to their deaths.

I don't want to see the criminalisation of women in such a situation, although I've blogged on here before about the action I'd like to see taken to reduce kerb-crawling and on-street prostitution. But I can't see why anyone should be exempt from paying taxes*. I wonder if Nadine thinks they should be prosecuted for not filing tax returns instead? (Not trying to score points here - I'm genuinely interested in where this line of thinking logically takes us).

*I'm sure there are plenty of other places you can blog about corporate tax evasion/ avoidance, not least on the Guardian website. But let's not get onto that here.

Living (and dying) in the public eye

I'm conflicted, as they say, on the Jade Goody story. Part of me feels that we should all just leave her alone to get better or, as seems more likely, to spend the little time that she has left with her family and friends. Certainly, if that's what she wants, then people should respect her wishes.

Sadly, it seems that she will continue to be a fixture in the tabloids as her illness takes its course, if only because as one of the new breed of celebs that's how she earns her living and that's the only way she has of providing financially for her two sons, both now and in the future when she may not be around to support them. I hope for her sake that the press voluntarily draws a clear line between stories with which she has willingly co-operated and for which she has been paid, and snatched paparazzi shots of her through car windows on her way to hospital or other intrusion.

In most circumstances the press might have an arguable case that someone who sells stories or promotes themself by revealing intimate details of their private life has renounced their right to privacy. Unwanted media intrusion is part and parcel of the celebrity lifestyle (although the Naomi Campbell case shows there are, quite rightly in my view, limits to this. I think the limit was certainly breached in respect of Britney Spears, during a period when she seemed to be suffering from serious mental health problems, and possibly in Kerry Katona's although in the latter case she is clearly often co-operating with the media. But I don't think their celebrity makes them fair game).

So as I said, part of me feels that we should leave Jade alone and therefore I feel slightly uncomfortable blogging about this. But her case does highlight an important issue, and in this day and age, it often takes a celebrity angle to draw attention to such things. From what I've read in the press, Jade had been treated on three previous occasions for pre-cancerous cells identified in smear tests, the first time being when she was only 16. But when a much more recent test revealed another problem, she was too scared to seek treatment. By the time she did, she had cancer, which has now spread.

There was quite a fuss last year when the Government introduced cervical cancer jabs for 12 year old girls (or, to put it more accurately, vaccinations against the human papilloma virus, HPV, which is one of the key causes of cervical cancer) and some scare-mongering from the usual quarters. But if it helps prevent deaths (1000 women a year die from cervical cancer) and promote awareness amongst young women of the disease, then I'm all in favour.

I'm also pressing the Government to explain why smear tests for 16-25 year olds have been withdrawn, on the basis that they allegedly 'do more harm than good'. I've recently written to the Public Health Minister after a constituent raised the issue with me. It's very rare for women in this age group to contract cervical cancer, but it still seems a step in the wrong direction to remove the right to have a test. Fraser Kemp, the Labour MP, has been a real champion of this cause and had an adjournment debate before Christmas. I don't know who's right or wrong on this issue, but I'm glad MPs like Fraser are prepared to ask questions.

How to have fun in the snow

More pics here.

Update on buses (with no mention of snow)

Have been chasing up First Bus about whether they'd be prepared to run a reduced fare pilot on a key route - e.g. the A420 Showcase Bus Route - to see whether it increases passengers numbers and encourages more people to use the bus. They say they're keen in principle, but need to look at finances - a 20% cut in the fare would require a 25% increase in passenger numbers to arrive at the same cash value. I don't think a 20% cut would be enough of an incentive; we'd been campaigning for a flat rate fare of £1 between St George and the city centre, and it's £2.30 at the moment. Cutting it to £1.84 wouldn't be enough to persuade people to take the bus instead of driving.

First Bus also defend recent fare rises, saying that from December 2005 to August 2007 (not sure why they chose this period - need to check that out) their fares rose by an average of 14%, whereas the consumer price index for transport produced by the National Office for Statistics indicated cost increases of 15.7%.

Still waiting on a response from Moir Lockhead, the Chief Exec of First, on the fare price issue - asking why, if fares had to be increased because of oil price rises, they don't get reduced when oil prices drop significantly.

What does all this blogging mean?

Alistair Campbell has started blogging. Good move.

I do wonder though - as more and more people start blogging, will it destroy the sense of a blogging community, as it gets more and more fragmented between lots and lots of sites? Will people hop around more from one site to another, and become ever more promiscuous with their affection, or will it be like newspapers and magazines - they stick to their regulars and only occasionally take a peek at something else? And will it eventually get to the point where newspapers comment columns are redundant because whatever they want to say, it's already been said before and said better somewhere in the blogosphere? How do people see things developing over the next year, or five years?

Celeb pic of the week

Speaking of things which are bigger than they should be... (or should that be, smaller than they should be?) here's a pic of Jodie Kidd and Rachel Stevens on Strictly Come Dancing.

Thursday 5 February 2009

A blog about nothing really

Back in Bristol (where it's snowing), watching Question Time. This is in itself a minor achievement. I drove down to London last week, rather than taking the train as I usually do. Tonight, however, on hearing reports of more snow in the West Country and traffic on the M4 down to one lane, I decided to do the sensible thing and take the train home. So - tube to Paddington, buy a paper, buy a coffee, jump on the train - and just as it pulls out of the station I realise the keys to the Bristol flat are in the car. In the car park. At the House of Commons.

Anyway, on the question of salt supplies... I have a Somali friend who has been trying to interest people in investing in a salt mine up on the northern coast of Somaliland. Maybe his time has come?

Blogging about furniture

Paul Smith, who has a proper job as well as being the Labour candidate for Bristol West, has just emailed me to say he's started a work-related blog. Not sure how much one can find to say about reusing furniture, but here it is, check it out:

Still liking him!

Obama is introducing an executive pay cap at US firms which have been bailed-out by the government.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

The number of the beast

For those of you who don't follow Twitter, here's news of an EDM:

EDM 666

Austin, John
That this House calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Snakes on buses

I don't have any phobias, apart from not liking things that are much bigger than they should be (no sniggering at the back, boys). This includes things like extra big round cheeses on market stalls, or fish in aquariums that look like goldfish but are the size of sharks. And really big books, like the sort they have in churches.

So although I'm not scared of snakes, this - "it would have reached up to a person's hips" - is horrible, just horrible.


A tweet from Tom Harris - "I enjoyed the Simon Mayo show but I was revealed as having no street cred whatsoever. So no change there, then". And here's why....

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Doing drugs

Didn't get time to blog on Sunday about my Politics Show appearance - basically about whether we should go down the Swiss route of having 'drugs consumption rooms' and prescribing heroin rather than methadone to addicts.
Advantages: gets addicts into contact with agencies, thus making them more likely to seek treatment; keep addicts and drugs litter off the streets; less risk of overdosing, using dodgy needles, etc; treats drug addiction as an illness rather than a crime; prescribing heroin reduces crime.
Disadvantages: should we be spending tax payers money on this; would it send out wrong signals re acceptability of drug use; is it the most effective use of resources? [And probably lots more, if you're of the Daily Telegraph mindset]. Anyway, here it is, if you want to watch it. The report from Switzerland with Maggie Telfer of Bristol Drugs Project is interesting.

Guest blog

well, it's lifted from an email someone's just sent me, entitled "If you want to feel nauseous"...

"Watch David Cameron and Carol “this is a non-political role” Vordeman in their completely unstaged snowball fight outside the Palace yesterday. The latest focus groups have shown that leaders who are “in touch” with snow are 24% more electable.

Carole took time away from flogging margarine and sub-prime loans to poor people to put her mundane powers of long division to good use. She expertly regurgitated the lines fed to her by Tory central office in one of the most unconvincing media events of the century, and with prompting from DC revealed that it had always been her ambition for children that we can be the best of the best, in Maths.

This is especially true of the 1000s of children who belong to families who took on risky debt consolidation loans and then spent late nights up with their parents trying to work if an APR of 12% means they can afford any Christmas presents.

In other news, the Conservatives have announced that experienced TV judge Simon Cowell will head up a new review of the criminal justice system and Thomas the Tank Engine is beginning work on a document to be presented at Conservative party conference on how high speed rail can form the basis of a new regional transport strategy."

Monday 2 February 2009

Studying green stuff

I asked a question in parliament last week about 'green collar' jobs and what more could be done to help arts/ humanities students who are passionate about environmental issues and want to work in this field, but don't have the right scientific or techy background to get onto an applied science Masters course. The answer from the Minister was pretty blunt - they should study STEM subjects in the first place, at A level and at uni. And then he told us what the Government is doing to encourage this, which seems to be paying off.

Actually, I almost didn't get to ask the question because the Table Office objected to my wording which was to ask the Sec of State “What steps he is taking to encourage more people to develop the skills required for green-collar jobs through studying science, engineering and technology subjects at universities.” I got 'carded' which means you get a postcard telling you to call the Table Office to 'discuss' your question. The clerk wanted to know what proof I had of a connection between acquiring such skills and getting green collar jobs, which kind of stumped me because I thought it was obvious. I started explaining about things like green technology and renewables, and then he wanted me just to ask about renewables, and I said there were lots of other uses to which science could be put... but couldn't off the top of my head think of any examples. I may, I fear, have mentioned compost. (It's biology!)

Anyway, here's a good one: geo-engineering the oceans. Can't decide if I should be excited by it, or alarmed, or cynical, or just baffled. But I think if students thought they could end up working on something like this, a few more of them might want to study science.

More on snow

BTW, comments about "why oh why does Britain grind to a halt at the slightest flurry of snow" are banned on this blog, because they're boring. Unless you agree with Hopi Sen that it's all Boris' fault. In which case, be my guest.

Iain Dale is quoting Boris: "We have the right kind of snow, just the wrong quantity".


I love the snow! I especially love the way six inches of snow manages to pile up on tiny little twigs. It's the first time I can ever remember snow settling in central London.

I'm number one at DWP questions today and Teresa May's office have been on the phone, checking I've arrived safely in Parliament. I assume that's because she wants to come in on my question (as she's now the frontbench DWP-er for the Tories) although I gather she has also phoned Tony Lloyd's office so she might be umm-ing and ah-ing between child poverty and benefits take-up. Parliament hasn't quite ground to a halt, although the underground carpark has been closed and the restaurants are all shut, except for the Terrace cafeteria. But we've been told, contrary to what Ben Brogan says, that the Commons is sitting as normal, although the Lords are still making their minds up.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Shot, shot by both sides...

I'm wondering if there's any way I can actually get this site to play the riff from Shot by Both Sides - officially the best guitar riff ever - whenever someone logs on? That would be great, wouldn't it? Especially if people were skiving at work.

Sending *** through the post

As people will know, I've been very critical of the BBC's decision not to air the Gaza appeal, but I think the whole Jonathan Ross thing has been a storm in a teacup. And now it's gettting very silly indeed. Today's Mail on Sunday reports "a new BBC taste row" with news that Jo Brand has - shock, horror! - made a joke that has offended the BNP. Well, good on you Jo. And no, I'm not suggesting people start posting them things.

On a more serious note, the BNP are making a serious play for the St George East council seat this time round. They've been leafleting heavily, including one leaflet - which I haven't seen yet - which reportedly says that the chimneys at Nazi death camps were built after the war ended.

For those who don't know the area, St George is a predominantly white area, with a mixture of social housing/ owner-occupiers, a fair bit of new build for young couples... There's undoubtedly some resentment about what is perceived as BME communities getting priority housing, or the inner-city wards 'down the hill' getting the regeneration funding, i.e. the sort of concerns Jon Cruddas raises frequently. With the economic downturn that may spill over into resentment about jobs too. (And just for the record, I don't dismiss their concerns in any way, I can entirely sympathise with people whose children can't get on the housing ladder, or who are stuck in unsuitable accommodation. But it's important also to nail the myths and misconceptions around these issues).

Can't see why the BNP is pushing the Holocaust denial message, rather than their usual Islamophobia, but I'm sure we'll see some of that too during the campaign.